5 lessons from our General Counsel community

In mid-June, Apperio invited a selection of clients, General Counsel and corporate Legal Operations professionals to benchmark the adoption of technology in legal departments - and enjoy a civilised breakfast - in our first Breakfast Briefing.

We discussed the cultural and commercial challenges of technology; and shared experiences from deployments, good and bad. Here are some of the most interesting lessons we learned, often in the words of our panel of contributors. 

1. Technology adoption is varied – but not for the reasons you might think.

As per the old stereotype, most of our panel felt that legal teams are prone to operate using outdated processes and systems. Some are indeed “running on emails”. However, this stereotype suggests that lawyers are simply technophobic, and that’s not the case.

On the contrary, everyone sees the value in streamlining; and legal professionals are only too aware of the pressures across a business – they don’t operate in splendid isolation: “Legal teams know that they should do more core legal work and less admin.”

The issue is more that procurement and deployment of technology can be “ad-hoc, unfocused and tactical rather than strategic”, and not because lawyers are technophobic but because they are conservative. In the words of one of our panel, “They tend to catastrophise. They look for perfection, rather than an entrepreneurial ‘test, fail, repeat’ attitude. That’s why there’s lots of scepticism around change”. It’s up to General Counsel and Legal Operations Managers to educate their internal clients on the opportunities for modernisation.

2. The Cloud is a problem, but it won’t be for much longer…

In the words of one of our contributors, “The Cloud is a problem for trust. Clients want to know within their own regimes - corporate, governmental and social - where their data is going. They also want clear SLAs, whether those SLAs are reasonable or not”.

But whilst the lower cost of cloud services has pushed them into the mainstream, the practical impossibility (and expense) of maintaining enterprise-grade security in-house has also made them progressively attractive to legal departments. They see cloud services in use in highly regulated industries like banking and healthcare; and realise that the multi-layered technical, physical and financial protections afforded by cloud providers is uneconomical to match in-house.

There is a similar reduction in risk from a cloud-approach. If a SaaS trial doesn’t work out, you can terminate it and restore your data in minutes. If an in-house data service doesn’t work out, the capital cost can be six or seven figures.

For these reasons, our panel felt that the expectations of legal professionals, and what technology teams could deliver, would rapidly converge.

3. Don’t wait for the burning platform

All of our panel saw the commercial value in Management Intelligence, metrics and visibility of data. One simply said, “Legal people are going to have to learn to collect information”.

But why? Because you can be ready for commercial obligations or have it arrive at your door. Once commercial pressure is applied to a legal team, the insight of data is soon valued. One Legal Ops professional said “We’re all being challenged to cut 20% of the work. The whole of the rest of our business – everyone except legal - used Jira to manage tickets, so we deployed it too. It stops basic questions from coming through and wasting our legal team’s time, so there’s an instant benefit.”

Another noted, “The perception that in-house Counsel members are too important to be seen as part of the rest of the business and must operate differently has to change.” So if the willpower is there, what’s missing?

4. Quantifiable data is the problem

The challenge is data, because too many legal teams operate unquantified. “Many in-house legal teams don’t have panels”, said one of our contributors, “they rely on personal relationships and knowledge to pick the right firm for the right job.” Most also felt that there are no KPIs for legal firms; no formalised approaches to assessing quality. One noted, “The academic skills of practitioners is a given, so what differentiates firms is the softer skills: their professionalism, commercialism, the quality of their relationships and so on.”

This suggests that these softer metrics are unquantifiable, but our panel also all agreed that bundled/consolidated legal solutions generally represent bad value for money – so value is clearly not impossible to assess. They also agreed that legal bills can vary wildly across the months, and that they often had little understanding of what their law firms were spending.

One GC in a large team added that, in any case, “there’s little vendor performance evaluation [data available] for GCs [to use]. Performance, for us, is subjective and rarely based on outcomes. All we keep is a basic ‘would you recommend this firm, yes or no?’ assessment on a questionnaire.”

At the very least, in the wry words of one member of our panel, “Law firms certainly always round up rather than down…”

There is clearly every incentive for GCs and Legal Operations professionals to harvest and use basic data from their law firm engagements. This is not binary: it doesn’t have to be a replacement for personal relationships or qualitative assessments of value – indeed it shouldn’t be. It is a value-based lens to assist legal buyers, and the ability to prove value is increasingly becoming a necessity.

5. The voice of Legal can be too weak

There was one more barrier to consider. We were surprised at how often the voice of the Legal department was not heard. One of our contributors, a sole Counsel, ventured that “General Counsel and legal teams are often perceived as back office”, and therefore won’t get as much input on technology purchases – or even budgets – as, say, the sales team. Far from being exclusively a sole Counsel’s story, other members of our panel agreed, saying “We have to fit in with front office priorities”.

What priorities? In particular, “Sales teams don’t want a bottleneck to their commission. If a technology is going to get in the way of a sale, it won’t work. If it’s going to help them, get their buy-in.” Either way, resources are always limited. “People and technology can fall into the same budget, so technology has to be justified by a demonstrable saving in order to qualify for investment.”

But these are true of all technologies – anything which doesn’t meet these criteria is unlikely to find an audience. Forward-thinking Legal Operations managers must connect with the rest of the operation and show how technology is part of the bigger picture of business operations, rather than an obscure black box.

Legal teams are not averse to technology or online services. If you use Microsoft Office 365, you’re already ‘in the cloud’. They are, however, rightly conservative: negatively predisposed to technology that gets in the way of BAU, can’t be sold into the rest of the business or – most importantly – can’t meet the demanding standards that lawyers themselves aim for.

But the application of technology to legal operations is as sure as it has been in other business functions. The objective of Legal Ops professionals should be to make it painless to teams and rich in value.

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